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France and Indo-Pacific Region ; By Samruddhi Pathak

Updated: Mar 6, 2023


Image Courtesy: The Diplomat

Article 69/2021


Maritime Geo-politics has changed from the Atlantic region to the Indo-Pacific region in the 21st century. With this region becoming pivotal of world maritime affairs, European countries have started to show interest there. This research shall discern France’s strategy and growing interest in Indo-Pacific. Initially, it is necessary to know the factors that led to France becoming the most engaging European power in the region. Also, we will analyze the official documents of the Ministry of Defense of France on its strategy towards Indo-Pacific, for instance, White Paper 2013 and recent documents for Indo-Pacific strategy. Then, France’s individual engagement with major countries in the region like Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and India. The research will also discuss France’s interest in the QUAD. Finally, the research will draw France’s strategy’s implications on China and India. The research will put special focus on the implications of France-China relations on India’s position in the Indo-Pacific. It will also highlight the opportunity it opens for India in 2021 and in the post-COVID19 era. The research will be done through qualitative methods as the official documents and statements will be analyzed. Also, some interviews shall be taken to provide readers with a more holistic perspective about the French presence in the Indo-Pacific region. This article shall conclude some policy recommendations for India with respect to international collaboration in maritime strategy.


France has been executing its Gaullist goals to have an independent role in the Indo-Pacific region for decades now. It became the first European country to recognize this region as ‘Indo-Pacific’ rather than ‘Asia-Pacific’. France has brought a successful and peculiar strategy with respect to the region as it is a European power with an independent presence and role in the Indo-Pacific region, which is geographically quite far from the mainland. Although France is rarely involved in or moderated any conflicts in the Indo-Pacific, it plays its role while forming alliances or fostering bilateral ties with countries in the region. For instance, moving away from Chinese strategies, announcing its disapproval towards human rights violations and violation of international maritime law by China has been done by France. Also, France-China relations need special attention since there has been quite a drastic change. From officials visiting China five times in 18 months to publicly expressing concerns on China’s unilateralism in the Indo-Pacific. France continues to be an important player since it has military ties with several Indo-Pacific countries. In 2012, around 50% of French arms sales were made to Asian countries.


France also tries to include the European Union as much as it can to enhance its significance for the region. With the US more active towards the region, France has got more room to bring the EU into the regional strategies. After Brexit, even the UK has drafted its Indo-Pacific strategy separately. A separate entity co-operating with France to build an influence is only positive, especially when UK’s naval might cannot be ignored. Similar can be said about France-US ties in the Indo-Pacific. Another like-minded assistance can be seen from NATO. This partnership becomes more explosive because the UK and France are the only nuclear powers in the EU, and both are a part of NATO as well.  Thus, from discussing bilateral ties to French strategy towards the region and the impact of it on India and China, the paper shall bring the readers with a holistic account on the issue.


Background and History

France did not become the most engaged European country in the Indo-Pacific accidentally. Quite a few factors played in of France. Primarily the former colonies and the colonies that later became French Overseas territories were huge assets in creating influence spheres. Making these territories a part of France was a strategic investment that even Britain could not implement. Over the years, these territories in Indian and Pacific Ocean became so integrated with France that they even have representation in French Parliament today. Representation and autonomy were two principles of self-determination that the UK, Portugal or even Spain could not invest in. Thus, today they miss the advantage France holds in the Indo-Pacific. With these advantages, already, in pockets, France did not fail in acting early on its foreign policy and bringing the necessary changes and shifts.


From the 1990s itself, France had started investing politically and economically in Indo-Pacific region. France started normalizing its relations with neighbors in Indo-Pacific with ending nuclear tests by 1995-1996 in French Polynesia [1]. It was also in chime with independence of Vanuatu by 1980 [2]. It also contributed to resolution of North Korean Nuclear crisis in 1996. Later, it also resolved the New Caledonian crisis by initiating autonomy process and signing the Noumeά Accord in 1998 [3]. In 1999, it also provided East Timor with military assistance to attain independence. Post-Cold war, France had even reduced its naval presence in the region. This built a goodwill among South Pacific countries for France. In 1991, France had questioned Chinese actions on the Tiananmen Square massacre and even decided to sell arms to Taiwan. Although arms were not sold later due to domestic political changes in France itself. France had also made a failed attempt to apply for membership at ASEAN Regional Forum in 1995 [4].


After the 1990s, France started increasing its military presence in the Indo-Pacific. A drift from Gaullist foreign policy to security-oriented foreign policy was visible. France got involved in the Afghan conflict and strengthened its naval purview in the Indian Ocean. Later in 2004, it even collaborated with China in carrying out maritime exercises. In 2008, during Shangri-La Asia security Summit, France suggested to have an international naval in the Malacca Strait to tackle illicit maritime activities and piracy, citing the example of Somalia and how French and Japanese involvement helped with security issues there [5]. This stance of France was not received well by the ASEAN countries who prioritized national sovereignty. It also joined the South Pacific Defense Ministers’ meeting in 2003. In 2008, then President of France Nicolas Sarkozy had questioned China on Tibetan unrest, but it could not bring any domino effect since it could not have support from other European countries.


From the 2010s, it started diversifying its relationship with Indo-Pacific states. Not only military and security ties, but economic and cultural ties also started to deepen. There were 33 visits made from French government officials in the Indo-Pacific region countries from 2012 to 2013 [6]. These gestures reflect the interest France showed in the region. From 2012, France also increased its trade with China, Japan, Australia, and Malaysia on a bilateral level. Not only with regional powers, but France also started coordinating with the US from this decade. Since 2014, the French Ministry of Defense and PACOM, US Command in the Indo-Pacific region, together have initiated multiple dialogues. Also, by mid of this decade i.e., 2015, Asia contributed to more than 50% of the total arms export of France. In 2016, France was recognized as an Indo-Pacific country after Polynesia and New Caledonia joined the Pacific Islands Forum. In 2018, France also used and adopted the term “Indo-Pacific” instead of “Asia-Pacific” which was used before by most developed nations. France became the first nation in Europe to acknowledge the term. This depicted the affinity France was building towards South-East Asia. Finally, in 2020, France became a part of IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association). Thus, it is important to understand the bilateral and multilateral ties France has in the Indo-Pacific region. These ties are the plinth of French purview in the region, which is the strongest among all European countries.


Bilateral and Multilateral ties


France-Japan

Japan, currently, is the closest nation to France in the Indo-Pacific region. France and Japan have even drafted a “Roadmap for maritime co-operation in the Indo-Pacific” the roadmap is planned for a period of 2019-2023 [7]. The plan gives priority to ensuring freedom of navigation in the region above many other things. The roadmap also suggests promoting cooperation between Agence Française de Developpement and Japan International Cooperation Agency and collaborating to increase the participation of Caledonia and French Polynesia in Pacific Alliance Leaders Meetings. The two countries will also exchange information on maritime security on a bilateral level. They will hold regular maritime dialogues and Japan will be cooperating with France within the framework of the Joint Pacific Initiative. This maritime framework is not only limited to security cooperation but also extends to cooperation on sustainable use of biodiversity in the Indo-Pacific region and climate change.


Apart from drafting a roadmap, the two nations have held regular dialogues on maritime issues. Even recently on 5 May 2021, during the G7 Summit, the foreign ministers of the two countries held a bilateral meeting as well. Minister Motegi even appreciated France’s enhanced engagement in the Indo-Pacific region. The ministers had a meticulous discussion on “EU Strategy for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific” and France’s role in it. They also exchanged talks on the East and South China Sea. The two ministers raised their respective concerns on China’s recent Coast Guard Laws, its unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the Indo-Pacific, current turmoil surrounding Hong Kong and Xinjiang province [8]. They also planned to work collectively on denuclearizing North Korea.


Thus, from the recent talks and drafted plans, one can conclude the France-Japan relationship on maritime issues will be a major factor in shaping the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific. France not only shares like-mindedness with Japan on issues like economic cooperation but also on the China factor. The two ministers dedicated sufficient time during the G7 Summit to address concerns around China, especially pertaining to the Indo-Pacific [9].


France-Australia

This bilateral relationship can be described using two major events. First, the Vision statement on the France-Australia relationship that was released by President Macron and President Turnbull collectively in 2018 and second, the Joint Statement of Enhanced Strategic Partnership between Australia and France that was signed in 2017, particularly to address strategic engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.


The Vision Statement mentions defense cooperation of the two countries will increase in the Indo-Pacific region and towards strengthening the Indian Ocean region’s architecture. Australia also welcomed the European contributions towards the security issues in the Indo-Pacific through the EU participation. The statement also suggests that France and Australia will work towards the inclusion of the EU in Indo-Pacific maritime initiatives through ASEAN-led processes [10]. Not only security issues but the statement also talks about climate change and humanitarian loss caused by them. The two countries plan to strengthen their response to these crises through FRANZ Agreement. The two countries will also work on strengthening civil-military responses in Australia and French territories in South Pacific. They also discussed the security threats imposed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program.


Another collaborative step i.e., Joint Statement of 2017, states that the two countries have mutually committed to peaceful settlement of conflicts in Indo-Pacific region. France will also be a part of Australia’s Future Submarine Program [11]. They also plan long-term strategic cooperation in the Pacific region by organizing biennial South Pacific Defense Ministers’ Meeting and biannual Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group Exchanges between France, New Zealand, the US, and Australia. France and Australia will hold regular meetings between French Asia and Oceania Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Australian International development, First Associate Secretary, Pacific Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for international development. Australia will also support the engagement of French territories in the Indian Ocean and France in IORA. Also, professional, and academic exchanges between French Pacific territories and Australia will be encouraged to establish people-to-people relations.


France-South Korea

Although bilateral ties between these two countries is not as deep as with Japan or Australia but both these countries continue to be a major player in their respective regions and have sustainable ties amongst them. South Korea has become more important for France since RCEP was signed between ASEAN countries, South Korea, China, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand which will be in force from 2022. South Korea has 200 subsidiaries of French companies, as of 2021. France is also the 4th largest European investor in South Korea and the leading mediator behind South Korea-EU FTA that was signed in 2011. The bilateral trade between South Korea and France amounts to € 8.6 billion, € 1 billion in favor of France [12].


France has been engaging with South Korea since 2018 even more since Chinese presence and unilateralism increased in the region. In 2018, South Korean President Moon visited France and both the leaders enlisted few priorities like holding dialogues on pressing issues like the Korean peninsula, climate change and strategy on bilateral ties; cooperation in diplomacy, security, and defense; enhancement in bilateral trade and fostering academic exchanges in the field of science and development. These priorities were well executed too, since on 24 May 2019, the strategic dialogue had taken place between Foreign Affairs Ministers of both countries [13]. Thus, the geographical and strategic importance of South Korea has only increased for France over the past few years.


France-India

One of the biggest bilateral events is the Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region was announced in 2018. Under the Strategic Vision, France and India raised similar concerns over maritime traffic security and the serious security threats that terrorism and piracy impose in the Horn of Africa. Not only security, but the leaders shared concerns on more diversified issues like climate change, freedom of navigation and overflight. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the consistent work that is being done on Bilateral Maritime Dialogue since 2015. The two countries have also discussed the possibilities of establishing trilateral dialogues.


France gave special attention to the Indian Ocean region while bonding with India. France has committed to cooperate on establishing peace, security, and freedom the region. It also supports India’s entry in the Indian Ocean Commission as an Observer member. France also proves to be a leader while involving India in the EU projects for the Indian Ocean.


French and Indian navies hold a vital collaborative exercise called Varuna Bilateral exercise that was initiated in 1983 [14]. The objective of this exercise is to enhance interoperability between the two naval forces. The two countries have announced that the upcoming edition of the Varuna exercise will aim towards submarine and anti-submarine warfare and combating marine terrorism. The two navies have also been holding passage exercises through which naval ships call at each other’s to foster coordination. In 2018, even a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between ISRO and CNES France aimed towards developing a maritime surveillance satellite system focusing on the Indian Ocean region. They have also signed the White Shipping Agreement that will allow the commercial ships of France and India to be in each other’s oceanic territories [15]. Thus, this evidently portrays the proximity of two countries on maritime issues, especially those concerning the Indo-Pacific region.


Multilateral ties

France has been a strong proponent of multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific region, an ideology that stands against Chinese practices in the region. In 2020, France joined the Indian Ocean Rim Association and became a part of the Pacific Quadrilateral Defense Coordination Group with New Zealand, Australia, and the US. France also started the Paris-Delhi-Canberra Axis in 2018 which held its first dialogue in September 2020. It also played a leading role in involving the EU in the region and making Europe more participative in the Indo-Pacific. The EU and ASEAN countries signed an Agreement of Strategic Partnership in December 2020. France also involved Portugal, Italy, and Denmark, militarily, in the Charles de Gaulle mission in 2019 by being accompanied by their ships [16].


French Strategy to Engage in the Upcoming Decade

France published its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2019 that navigates readers to a glimpse of French intentions towards the region. Its primary security concerns are to protect its national in the region, secure strategic supplies and advocate stable region. Although its concerns seem limited to its territories, its interest go quite farther than that. It states the kind of moral stance that France will take in the future, for instance, promoting rule-based multilateral order, rejecting unilateral ambitions and restrictions to freedom of navigation, and counter-influence operation aimed to erode purview of democratic regimes.


France greatly highlights the impacts of the US-China competition on the order of the region. It certainly raises concerns on China’s growing influence and the shift in the balance of power to Northeast and Southeast Asia. Another point highlighting its skepticism towards China is mentioning its close relations with Russia, supporting North Korea and its political proximity with Pakistan. France perceives these partnerships as a way to challenge democratic values. According to France, not only economic and political cooperation, but rivalries will also play a vital role in shaping the geopolitics of the blue territory. Conflicts like the US-China, Iran-Saudi Arabia and India-Pakistan will extend the Indian Ocean. Also, China’s interest and investment in Pakistan makes the regional security equation even more complex.


France continues to be a proponent of multilateralism by stating the importance of initiative like GCC and ASEAN. Thus, France might attempt to broaden its influence spheres only through multilateral approaches rather than bilateral. France also intends to increase its influence sphere by converting harbor cities and ports into French assets. Creating sea-lanes of communication will include France more in the region. Also, importance of militarization of French overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific is well understood by France.

France also identifies its links with China from Djibouti where both countries have their forces present. France meanwhile also displays some skepticism towards that military presence as Chinese forces were absent in the Indian Ocean until 2008 and only in the last decade they have increased overwhelmingly. Another doubt the strategy paper raise with respect to armed presence is about its relations with Russia. Chinese navy had carried out naval exercises with Russian navy in the Baltic seas, extending the scope of its naval presence beyond Indo-Pacific region.


France also needs to adapt to the rapid security changes that are taking place in the region. Now the military presence and investment have changed, in the 20th century European powers had invested and aced their presence on the blue territory. However, over the years European countries have decreased their military expenditures which has been reverse for Asian countries. Indo-Pacific countries have invested more and increased their defense budget over the years, especially in the 21st century. This effect becomes more amplified considering the high-end technology we have today. Thus, developing the ability to act in a changing security environment is one of the objectives of French armed forces.


The paper states, “control of our [French] overseas territories’ immediate environment and the monitoring of our sovereign space require the deployment of means and expertise, which are specifically military.” Therefore, France will put very high emphasis on its military presence in the region in the coming years. France will avoid, however, any unilateral military developments of its own. It will make these developments through multilateral cooperation, for example, Pacific QUAD or FAZSOI.


Hence, France might take a neutral stand verbally but its official strategy towards the region inherits the characteristics of being a democracy and a NATO member.


A major recent event was the G7 Summit Cornwell which China had described as “political manipulation” of Chinese actions and intentions [17]. Even though France took an independent stand when President Macron was exclusively questioned about its strategy towards Indo-Pacific, he certainly displayed his doubts with respect to China quite explicitly while surmising the G7 summit. From calling out China’s human rights violations and a highly undemocratic regime to a fundamentally different country from any G7 member, President Macron listed all the reasons why China will not be at the G7 table for a long time [18]. He also described the depth of France-Japan and France-South Korea relations towards the Indo-Pacific strategy and how these countries together wish to establish a multilateral order. President Macron also called Japan as the maritime hegemon of the region. Also, this time President Macron emphasized on importance and relevance of NATO. Thus, the G7 summit Cornwell was also about reviving NATO and the identity it has lost over the decades. NATO will prove to be a significant factor in the region as after Russia, today China is viewed with same amount of skepticism from the G7 members.


France and China

Despite political differences, France is not a country that would go on an outright trade dispute with China. Unlike the US, France maintains its relations with China. These relations do have a great impact on Indian foreign policy and its backing on international platforms. Thus, discussing France-China cooperation becomes pertinent to Indo-Pacific geopolitics as well. The two countries have collaborated on researching infectious diseases. This collaboration had been announced in January 2017 and has slowed down since the outbreak of COVID-19. G7, especially, France, has raised questions regarding the origin of the Cov-sars-2 virus.


They have also been working on developing Chinese French Oceanic Satellites and a Space Variable Objects Monitor. These developments hold immense importance for India and the international community as these collaborations not only assist China step into the EU security developments but also monitor the traffic in the Indo-Pacific. France, being a NATO member, has a thin line to walk while making security collaborations with China, especially the projects that include sharing technologies. Among these collaborations, about 140 projects are decentralized too [19]. Also, despite the US-China trade war underway, France signed an aviation deal with China worth €30 billion. China also bought around 300 aircrafts from France. Thus, even if the political stand is different, France collaborates with China on security matters. On the other side, France also sent its nuclear attack submarines to patrol on the South China Sea to which China expressed its agitation [20]. Hence, it is important to discuss Chinese perspective on France-China relations with respect to the Indo-Pacific region.


Chinese Perspective

Chinese intentions towards the region have been unilateral which are clear from its actions too. China has previously emphasized on safeguarding its maritime rights and territorial waters although it is harmless, but the problem arises on the territories it claims as its own. China claims Taiwan, Parcel Islands and most islands present in South China Sea [21]. With France, China shares the experience of being a permanent member of the UNSC. Irrespective of how much China extols its relationship with France, there is a divide in their perceptions towards the region. However, China has never outrightly spoken against French strategy in the region. On the one side, France has shown its dissent via not ratifying the extradition treaty with Hong Kong. It has also advised its local distributors against using Huawei and has even set a target of 2028 to completely eradicate it [22] and France is aiming to lessen its technological dependence on Chinese solutions too. On the other side, France also stated that the EU countries should not align themselves completely with the US and gang up on China [23]. President Macron even said that Sino-America tensions might make international summits as their playground.


Implications on India

India is a part of the QUAD and thus aligned with the US in the Indo-Pacific region. After Galwan Valley conflict, India has been more vocal in going against Chinese aggression in the region. Even though France remains neutral on maritime issues, it has shown interest in the QUAD. India needs to connect the dots with the EU and QUAD with help of France. India has islands like Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep in the Indian Ocean which should be better operated and even militarized to grow presence in the ocean. India needs to collaborate with France while working on trilateral relations with individual ASEAN countries.

When it comes to French strategy, India needs to cooperate with France on bilateral terms rather than trying to include it into multilateral ventures like the QUAD. France’s inclusion in the QUAD will certainly strengthen its alliance but it will not materialize well. Forming a great bilateral alliance, especially on collaboration with defense, security and military would be fruitful. Also, diplomatically India needs to make efforts on bridging the gap between France and Russia. India also needs to gain French trust by cooperating to create some public opinion in favor of France among Southeast Asian countries. Also, through security ties and maritime trade, India should build a very pragmatic relationship with France that cannot be hindered by a third party. Interdependence will be a way to propagate the maritime relationship with France.


Conclusion

France is certainly seeking an influence in the Indo-Pacific where the economic incentives of all member countries are aligned very well with the country’s interests, the position that China has today in the region. As observed, France emphasizes less on multilateral ties than on bilateral ones. Thus, even after drifting away from China on a multilateral level, the significance and visibility of that drift is not much. Chinese unilateralism is icing on the cake, moreover, China emphasized on its naval presence in the recent white paper too. Its border issues have only upscaled since the outbreak of COVID-19 suggesting further drift from French principles. Also, the handling of COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the downsides of over reliance on China for essential goods.


On the other side, we learn that India needs more interdependence with France on naval terms. Also, India needs more trade ties with ASEAN countries. Most ASEAN countries use Indo-Pacific region for trade, increasing the same with them will increase India’s maritime presence in the region. India has come a long way in working in chime with France on Indo-Pacific strategy and it needs to change its image from being just a big fat defense equipment buyer. India also needs to take out a leaf from France’s book, which is building strong bilateral relations. This is something that China has been doing even before India had introduced its ‘Look East’ policy. India and France also need to collaborate on shifting the public opinion in Indo-Pacific in their favor. This can be done through providing substantial humanitarian assistance to these countries since consensus influences the country’s foreign policy to a great extent. Countries like Vietnam and the Philippines are already vocal against China. India can invest in their development, a strategy that India has been implementing in the Maldives to build the consensus in their favor. India is a country that is capable enough to face a two-front war, thus it has enough capacity to enhance its presence and relevance in Indo-Pacific too. A long-term pragmatic partnership with France will provide a great diplomatic dividend to both countries.


(Ms. Samruddhi Pathak is a research intern from the Chennai Centre for China Studies. She is pursuing her Masters in International Relations from Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), O.P. Jindal Global University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of C3S.)


References:-


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[20] Zhang, Rachel. 2021. “South China Sea: Why is France flexing its muscles in the contested waters”. South China Morning Post. 28 February 2021. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3123342/south-china-sea-why-france-flexing-its-muscles-contested

[21] China National People’s Congress. 1992. “Law of the PRC on the territorial sea and contiguous zone”. Government of China. http://www.npc.gov.cn/wxzl/wxzl/2000-12/05/content_4562.htm

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[23] Momtaz, Rym. 2021. “Macron: EU should not gang up on China with US”. Politico. https://www.politico.eu/article/macron-eu-shouldnt-gang-up-on-china-with-u-s/

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